Margaret Christie

photo of Margaret Christie

“I think we could create a team because we had relationships with deep history here—people looking out for each other and asking, ‘How do we come together and do something about this?’”

Bio/Background

Margaret Christie has served in a variety of roles at the Massachusetts-based, non-profit organization Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). CISA supports the “local food economy” throughout Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties by assisting farms and improving community access to their produce. Christie is currently CISA’s Special Projects Director, in which capacity she is responsible for leading research on large-scale produce sales, and on the development of agricultural infrastructure. In the past, she has served as CISA’s executive director (1997-1999), as well as its interim executive director (2008). She completed her undergraduate degree in sustainable agriculture at Evergreen State College and earned her master’s degree in rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Create a Theory of Social Impact

Among CISA’s most successful programs is a three-year grant, run in coordination with allied partners, which supports farmers in years three through ten of new farm operation. Christie notes that this grant filled a critical gap which had historically caused new farms to struggle, sometimes to the point of failure.

“Our theory with this was that there is a fair amount of support for people in the ‘startup phase’ of farming—for people who are looking for land, or who want to developtheir first business plan. But there’s not as much help for people who have made itthrough the first two or three years. Those people are beginning to say, ‘I’ve been running hard, and it’s sort of working, but I really need to make some big decisions now. Which direction am I really going? Which investments do I need to make? Should I hire a new person, should I buy a truck or a tractor?’ Thus, the purpose of this grant is to get people over that next ‘hump’ and build a sustainable business, one that will last.

Redefine the Problem, Create a Team

A significant challenge to CISA’s mission came in the form of Hurricane Irene (2011), which destroyed numerous local crops and made much of the what survived unsafe to sell. Inevitably, this placed the local food economy under enormous economic strain.

“There was a lot of flooding after Hurricane Irene. Once fields are flooded in a really dramatic event like that, you don’t know what’s in the water in terms of septic waste and people’s propane tanks. So even if you still have crops in the ground, you can’t sell them.”

Christie believes that one of the reasons local agriculture was able to rebound so quickly after this tragedy was that the community chose to redefine the problem—viewing it through a relational lens, as opposed to one focused on profit-and-loss. This, in turn, enabled CISA to create a team of partners capable of buffering farmers’ losses.

“There’s a farmer who we’ve worked with, who was complaining that they were getting phone calls, particularly from the Whole Foods in Hadley, which has a long track record of supporting local farmers and buying from local farmers. They’ve really had a positive impact on the number of farms in our region; they’ve helped make it possible for people to grow their businesses and be serving multiple supermarkets. So, they have a strong relationship with a lot of farmers in the valley, but they were really worried about the impact of flooding. They were calling farmers and saying, you can’t sell us anything that’s been flooding. It’s a food safety risk, and we just want to make sure you know that. And farmers were feeling like, ‘They’re not even asking us how we’re doing!’

“This farmer called them and said, ‘I understand that of course you have to pay attention to food safety, but you should see if you could balance it out a little bit with providing support. These people are in a really hard place—they’re going to lose a lot of crops.’ That kind of triggered the Whole Foods people in our local store to put their heads together. Eventually they decided, this guy’s right, what can we do? So, they called us and said, ‘We want to do something for farmers, to help farmers get through this. And we can work with you.’

“At about the same time, we had a donor who called us and said, ‘This is devastating for farmers and I want to do something about it.’ And of course, that helped too.

“I think we could create a team because we had relationships with deep history here—people looking out for each other and asking, ‘How do we come together and do something about this?’”

Let Your Team Leave a Legacy

Working in tandem with the local Whole Foods and willing donors, CISA quickly funded an interest-free loan pool which farmers could access to cover the costs of Hurricane Irene. The positive precedent set by this teamwork has, Christie says, proven invaluable as farmers have dealt with the negative impacts of climate change.

“There are numerous state and federal programs that provide emergency relief to farmers after natural disasters. Some of them can provide a lot more help than we can. Unfortunately, though, government aid can take a while to come through.

“But we were able to start this farm fund which provides interest-free loans of up to $10,000. We open it whenever there’s a weather disaster which affects multiple farms, so it’s been accessed several times in the last five years. The weather has gotten more and more volatile, and farmers are dealing with climate on a daily basis: it impacts disease pressure, it alters how farmers have to manage their labor. The loan fund is small tool, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. It’s a partial answer to the question, ‘How do we support farmers as they live with climate change?’”

To Scale Up, Meet Everyone’s Goals

Among CISA’s major victories is its success in enlarging economically underprivileged communities’ access to local produce. Christie credits CISA’s achievement here to its willingness to cooperate with the different missions and goals of its partner organizations. In other words, CISA was able to scale up its own outreach by helping meet the needs of allied stakeholders, who in turn willing to lend their support to CISA. Over time, then, everyone involved was able to make a more meaningful difference than would have been the case had they worked alone.

“We are doing more work related to ensuring that everybody in the community has access to local food, and we \ do a lot of that with partners because our mission is around local food—not around hunger or food insecurity. That being said, we also believe that everybody ought to have access to local food. So, we’ve had, for a long time, a senior farm share program, which provides a share of the harvest to low-income seniors. And we’re also a partner on a really exciting statewide program which provides a rebate to SNAP recipients who use their SNAP benefits to buy produce directly from farmers.

“Numerous farmer’s markets in the
region were doing some kind of SNAP-matching program. Some of them came up to us and said, ‘This is really great work, we’re really glad we’re doing it. But it’s very hard to do, year after year, as an individual market. So, it’d be wonderful if we could work something out regionally, rather than having each market trying to raise money alone to match SNAP benefits.’ We responded to that, as did the community, and together we raised money to SNAP-match region-wide. And we did that for a couple of years.

“Meanwhile, the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) was doing some research funded by the USDA. They were trying to figure out whether—if you gave people a rebate when they bought fruits and vegetables—people bought more fruits and vegetables. And indeed, they did buy, and eat, more fruits and vegetables! The DTA then used that research finding to support an application to fund this program which offers a rebate statewide, to all SNAP recipients, if they purchase produce directly from local farmers.

“So: the DTA did this great thing of linking their interest in nutrition and health for SNAP recipients, with the USDA’s interest in local agriculture and desire to build the local food economy, by creating this program, funding it, and focusing it on produce from local farms. And CISA’s role here is to commit the farms to the program and help manage some of the challenges which come up.”

Expand Your Constituency

Christie also highlighted the importance of continuing to re-evaluate her organization’s strengths and weaknesses, and thereby to expand the depth and breadth of its outreach. Specifically, she points out, this self-evaluative approach has helped CISA make a more productive difference in Hampden County, where it has historically had less of a presence.

“We started by asking, ‘Are we covering our bases? Are we doing our core work well across our whole three-county region?’ Because the core of our work is serving farmers through the Local Hero program, which provides a lot of promotional and marketing assistance, as well as training and technical help. It provides one-on-one support for farm businesses, but also for allied restaurants and institutions. But we realized that CISA wasn’t representing as many farms or other food business members in Hampden county as we do in Franklin and Hampshire county. The Local Hero program wasn’t as active there. So, the process of asking those questions showed us where we needed to invest some energy.

“Ultimately, it took a lot of legwork being on the ground, meeting people, talking to people, and going down to see farms and going into restaurants—in order for us to enlarge our presence in Hampden county. But thanks to that work, we have increased the number of Local Hero members that we have there, and our familiarity with those folks. Once a week, our executive director goes on the local radio station and sits down with the radio personality and a couple of businesspeople and talks about what’s going on with their farms, or events which are coming up in their restaurant or business or whatever it is, and now we are much more familiar with businesses in Hampden county, so we can think of them when it’s time to talk about a topic, we know who’s doing that in all three counties better than we did before.”